What the Handmaids Taught Me by Mary Beth Gahn

“Oh, it is ON,” I thought, watching them walk in. In Wisconsin, your political event hardly happens if you don’t draw protesters.

This group of women, about 10, in red robes and white bonnets entered the Capitol Rotunda and walked through it in pairs. They dressed as handmaids, a character popularized by the web television show The Handmaid’s Tale, based on a novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. In the story, a totalitarian and theocratic government has totally subjugated women and stripped them of their dignity and humanity.

These women at our pro-life bill-signing rally are not here to support the legislation- they believe they are warning us.

As they circled the crowd and climbed the stairs to the balcony above and behind our stage, I grabbed rally supporters with their signs and friends and hoofed up the stairs behind them.

The rally started and I heard murmurs from the protesters, and then fully vocalized dissent. It must have been audible from the first floor, because we had visits from at least one police detective and various members of the Capitol Police, who all encouraged both protesters and supporters to pay attention to the program and keep distractions to a minimum.  One protester pulled out a homemade sign that said, “HELP.” I imagine she wrote it with her tongue-in-cheek, as part of her costume, but I think it was sincerer than she would like us to believe.

As I stood holding my rally sign with these women, and with the pro-life teenage girls who brought their own signs from home, I heard the protesters intimidating the teens and addressing them directly. They disparaged the teenagers’ educations and their home lives, even going so far as to ask questions like, “Don’t you know you’re fighting against your own rights?” One woman invited us to visit what she called a “concentration camp” when she goes next week. She was referring to an immigrant detention center in Homestead, Florida. Unfortunately, her tone wasn’t that inviting.

The program carried on and so did this verbal sniping. Distracted from the speakers on stage, I watched these interactions and thought about our protesters: the vitriol with which they spat their words, their ardent support of abortion, and what compelled these women, on this day, to be here.

Then I remembered why I was there.  Wisconsin Right to Life’s guiding values include “respect for those we serve, respect for those with whom we serve, and respect for those with whom we disagree.” I guess this is where the rubber meets the road!

To call myself a good employee, I must be polite to and respectful of these protesters, because the same rights that allow my group to gather also allow their group to gather in the same place. 

When I say that I am pro-life because I believe in the God-given dignity of every human being, I may not ignore someone just because she is a bully or disagrees with me.

When I hear someone speak as passionately, and with such unbridled emotion as these protesters used, I must understand that their speech is fueled by extreme experiences.

When the words they use are so dark and painful, I know those experiences must be dark and painful, too.

My anger and impatience began to subside, and I felt another emotion: compassion. Each of these women has her own story, and each story must be similarly harrowing.

Each of these women was once a child in the womb like those I work to protect, and the depths of their anger mirrored the depths of their sorrow and anguish.

Their one sign, “HELP,” makes perfect sense now.

Unfortunately, with emotions running high and time running short – and without any relevant training –  I couldn’t ask them any questions about their personal experiences or what brought them to our rally. I could, hopefully, show that I was not angry.

When the rally was over, I once more heard an “invitation” to join this woman in Florida. I thanked her, sincerely, for reminding us that there is more than one pro-life issue pressing on our nation’s conscience today, but declined, explaining that because of work obligations and financial restraints, 70 miles to the Capitol in Madison was as far as I could travel to save lives this week.

Hopefully I can go further next time, but for now – whether it is in my state or in my soul – my charge to recognize human dignity and defend the fragility of life begins at home.

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